Timely Blueberry Disease Control

Timely Blueberry Disease Control

Bacterial Canker In Blueberries


Editor’s Note: Jay Pscheidt, the author of this story, is an Extension plant pathology specialist in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology at Oregon State University.

Bacterial canker of blueberry shows up in the spring, but to get it under control, growers in areas such as western Oregon and Washington should make applications of copper-based pesticides in the fall. Here’s the bottom line: Spray twice, first before fall rains, preferably the first week in October, and again four weeks later. Bacteria resistant to copper products have been detected frequently in the Willamette Valley and British Columbia. Cultural tactics include using resistant cultivars, removing diseased wood, and avoiding late-summer nitrogen applications.

There is very little published information for bacterial canker on blueberry. A report from Oregon (1953) and another from Tasmania (1984) speculate that infection occurs in the fall even though symptoms occur in the early spring. Each is based on sound observations and isolations of the bacteria. Three spray trials done by E.K. Vaughan and C.A. Boller in the 1950s clearly show fall applications of Bordeaux reduce the number of diseased plants in the spring. Fall applications were made in early October and again in early November. Unfortunately they did not test fall versus spring applications. Such a trial still needs to be done.

Without much more data on blueberries, we can only draw on similar diseases from other crops. This bacterium incites diseases on many crops. It can cause a “fall disease” (such as shoot dieback of Japanese Maple) or a “spring disease” (such as bacterial blight of lilac). Sometimes the bacteria are active both times of the year such as in cherries.

Bacterial canker of cherry has both fall (canker) and spring (dead bud) symptoms. “Fall” or “spring” indicates when the bacteria are actively invading plant tissue and when control tactics are more likely to be effective. Most of the time, symptoms occur in the very late dormant season or during spring growth for these crops — even if infection occurs in the fall. These diseases are notorious for being erratic in occurrence, devastating when they do occur, and frustrating to manage given the limited tools we have available.

Copper-based products are about the only legal materials one can use against these diseases. Chemical management of these diseases is next to impossible as a sole tactic. Unfortunately we see too much use of copper-based products alone. The notion of using a little more, at higher rates, with more applications to get better timing is the wrong path to go down.

The Problem With Copper

There is published research that clearly shows bacteria resistant to copper-based products in blueberries in the Pacific Northwest. There was a time folks thought that bacteria could not be resistant to copper since it is such a broad-spectrum material hitting many biochemical systems in microorganisms. That changed in the 1990s as evidence mounted against that notion. The more copper is used, the more resistant the bacteria become. Just using higher rates and/or more frequently is not sustainable. The addition of other materials to copper mixes just increases the copper ion concentration and thus has the same effect.

In most cases, people reasoned that using more copper was OK thinking that even if they did not get any disease control, that was not a problem as long as it did not harm the plants. Recent published research on cherries, however, has found that applications of copper-based products made bacterial canker worse. In other words, the non-treated trees had significantly less disease than trees treated with copper-based materials.

Bordeaux was one of the first fungicides ever developed being used to combat a downy mildew problem on grapes in the mid 1800s. So much was used for so long that copper toxicity in soils became a problem. It is my opinion that we should, as an agricultural community, begin to limit the amount of copper that is used so we do not end up with the same problems.

Managing bacterial canker of blueberries will involve the use of one or two applications of copper-based materials in the fall, removal of diseased wood during the winter, and attention to horticultural needs of blueberry such as an acid soil pH. Use of copper-based materials in the spring misses the time of infection and increases the buildup of resistant bacteria.

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